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iPods - Are They All That?

Tuesday 15 June, 2004, 01:20 PM

I've had an iPod for a little over a year now. It's a 30GB one which, having the second-generation case design, marks me out as not being ahead of the fashion curve. But I think you already knew that. :-)

Everyone seems to rave about them. I on the other hand think they're merely OK. I think they fall into a particular product category:

Great ideas with mediocre implementations

The idea of the iPod is great - you just can't argue with the ability to carry all your music around with you. I wouldn't be without such a device now. In fact it's such a great concept that you'll get away with an implementation that's merely passable. Which is how I'd rate my iPod.

I have three main gripes.

First, it seems to be very buggy. The bugs change every time there's a software update, which suggests it's not simply that I happen to have a duff unit. On the current release, its favourite trick is just giving up halfway through an album and returning to the main menu. (Always at the end of a track.) It also sometimes plays a short burst of noise in place of a track before carrying on with the next track. It plays these tricks about once a day, and I'm only using it for about 1 hour a day at the moment.

Older versions of the software had other problems. The UI used to lock up, although the music would carry on. Sometimes it spontaneously rebooted. Those issues seem to have been fixed now. (Although a lot of probems went away when I moved from MP3 to AAC. This was on the recommendation of Apple's support line - apparently it falls over a lot with MP3s.) A problem which it still has today and has had for several versions, is that it doesn't like really long tracks. For example, I cannot listen to all of Led Zeppelin's How The West Was Won, because the middle disk has some very long tracks. It gets 10-12 minutes in and then just goes to the next track!

Second, it doesn't provide continuous play between tracks. An awful lot of my CDs don't have a break between tracks - it's pretty common for one to fade into another. But the iPod inserts a short hiatus between every song. A few iPod fans have tried to tell me that it's impossible to go smoothly from one track to the next for technical reasons. Sorry, but that's not true. It's technically more challenging, and requires more processing horsepower to achieve a smooth transition, but its absolutely possible. The iPod just fails to rise to the challenge. (Or possibly it has been equiped with insufficient processing power. Either way, it's a flaw in the product - it has a negative impact on my listening enjoyment, and in a product whose sole purpose is to be enjoyable to listen to, that's just feeble.)

Third, the buttons are rather annoying. The visual design is great - the fact that they just seem to be an integral part of the case with no obvious moving parts looks very slick. But the ZX81 also has that feature, and as anyone who, like me, learned to program on one of those will tell you, the lack of tactile feedback isn't good for usability.

In particular, I find that the Play/Pause button quite often doesn't register a press. Since it doesn't always provide instant feedback to input if it's in the middle of doing something with the transport, this is especially annoying. Meanwhile, the Next Track/Previous Track buttons are oversensitive. So I often end up brushing Next Track when I'm trying to get Play/Pause to notice me. Give me buttons with some kind of physical click action any day.

I also have one minor usability gripe. I like to search for albums by artist. If you use this technique to locate a multiple-artist album, it carefully just plays tracks from the artist you happened to use to find the album. I'm using the artist as a way of locating the album - browsing by album it too tedious because the list is too long. So having used the artist name as a convenient way of finding the album I want to listen to, I'd like to play the whole album thanks. In a year of owning the thing, I've yet to run into a scenario where the filtering you actually get is what I wanted.

My Next MP3 Player

At some point I'm assuming my iPod will suffer some kind of hardware failure which will not be cost effective to fix. That's not a comment on the construction quality by the way, I just regard this to be the inevitable upshot of using a hard disk in a product that lives in your pocket. Particularly if, like me, you're clumsy enough to drop it from time to time...

So, what will I get next? Believe it or not, I'm considering another iPod, despite my complaints. This is mainly because I don't have high confidence that any other manufacturer will do any better... Moreover, given that Apple seem to be focusing their efforts on the iPod, and that they have several years of experience in building them, they're probably going to get better. And of course there's the vendor lock-in - I'm not wild about the prospect of reripping my whole music collection...

However, it wouldn't take much to lure me away. If I were convinced that a product were available which fixed all these flaws without introducing any significant new flaws, I'd happily drop the iPod. (Metaphorically, this time.)

This makes me wonder if Apple are setting themselves up for a fall. They give every impression that they're making iPod-like things their primary product area. Given that even a flawed implementation of an iPod-like thing (such as the iPod) is saleable, it seems likely that this market will soon be commoditised. Perhaps they're hoping that iTunes will act as the hook. Perhaps it will, although that's not why I got one - Apple only launched a European version of iTunes today. And to be honest I'm not all that interested in it. CDs aren't that much more expensive, and I like (a) having a backup, and (b) the lack of DRM on CDs - I'm not really quite clear under what circumstances I'll end up losing everything in iTunes. (What happens if I have a hard disk failure? What if I buy a new computer? I'm sure the answers to these questions are all easy enough to find, but with CDs it's really not an issue.) Also (c) I know that a conventional music CD isn't going to tie me into any particular MP3 player.

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